Friday, 24 May 2013
Flying to Rotterdam? That's easy - and boring! Much more fun to explore by train! Come with me on a journey from my native Stourbridge Junction to Rotterdam Centraal - all via rail!
‘twas the melodic voice of one Jacqui Abbott – lead singer of The Beautiful South – back in 1996 who first awakened the Dutch City of Rotterdam in my psyche. This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere. Liverpool or Rome, she crooned.
So when the UITP (International Association of Public Transport) asked me if I would like to attend a meeting of their NODES project (looking at design and operation of urban interchanges) in Rotterdam, how could I refuse?
Flying is the easy option. But making the journey via train appealed to me. I’d never been to Rotterdam before, so a chance of some European train mystery shopping on the way sounded good.
The plan seemed easy enough. London to Brussels via Eurostar, then an hour up to Rotterdam on the High-Speed Thalys.
Booking the tickets on the web was easy enough via the Eurostar website, and supposedly an all-in-one ticket from London to Rotterdam was the result, but I was greeted on my laptop screen by a error message with a list of goodness knows how many numbers, informing me I couldn’t print my ticket. I did have my booking code though. So surely no problem?
I emailed Eurostar’s contact centre, who emailed back within an hour informing me they couldn’t find a problem (!) but if they did, they’d let me know. I could print out my tickets in St. Pancras. Next day I tried to print them again, only to receive a message that I’d already printed them. There is a sequel to this mini-saga, more of which anon.
So, cometh the day, cometh the journey. It was a Sunday, which saw me at Stourbridge Junction, travel bag in hand, awaiting the first train of the day into Birmingham Moor St. This arrived spot on time, although there was standing room only. Snow Hill lines are popular 7 days per week, and shopping in Brum surely necessitates an early journey than 0955?
Nonetheless, my 30 minute hop into Birmingham on a London Midland 172 is a pleasant enough experience.
I walk the short distance from Moor Street to New Street. This is only my second time in the “new” New Street, which has recently opened up half of its new build. To be honest, anything would have better than “old” New Street, which had increasingly become tired, with its 60s facade hardly inspiring any joy in train travel.
“New” New Street is also a hive of activity for a Sunday morning. I take a few minutes to soak up the atmosphere. A robot announces that passengers requiring assistance for platform 12 should “seek assistance”. The brand new cash machines are already apologising – they’re all out of order. I look for directions to the Gents. There aren't any. A helpful assistant points me in the direction of the old ones, where the 30p charge appears to have been suspended.
“New” New Street is brighter, but it’s still a concrete jungle to me. I look forward to the finished effort in 2 years time, when we’re promised natural light. And John Lewis.
My London Midland train to the Capital is an uneventful affair. Again, a comfortable trip, but lack of socket to charge my juice-heavy phone is a distinct “missing product” on longer-distance journeys these days. As is wi-fi.
My London Midland journey from New St to Euston
My ticket remains unchecked until I reach the barrier at Euston, where I leave another concrete 60s jungle for a 10 minute walk to another world in UK rail termini – St. Pancras International.
I pay a silent homage to Sir John Betjeman as I enter Barlow’s magnificent gateway to European train travellers (and those heading to the East Midlands too.) The great man led the campaign to keep open this incredible and beautiful structure, and his quirky statue is just as impressive as Paul Day’s giant “The Meeting Place” depiction of an embracing couple. Add the Champagne Bar into the equation, and this is feel-good stuff. We Brits can do excellence in train travel if we really put our mind to it.
With my “feel-good-ness” ratcheted up about 10 points, I head to the ticket printing machines, where a smiling assistant provides an ever calming persona despite the screen protesting that, as previously mentioned, I’d already printed my ticket. A few taps of her computer and I had 4 new “real” tickets in my hand.
And so to the queue for customs.
My new tickets had one problem – they didn’t work the automatic barriers. So it’s a further wait with another calm and collected Eurostar member of staff – this time a more mature gentleman, who tells me that, actually, my train is fully booked and I haven’t got a seat as such. Apparently someone “will sort me” on the platform.
It’s a busy Sunday afternoon, and there are a multitude of languages being spoken in the waiting area. I’ve already set the body scanner off (as I do at the airport most times – and I’ve never found out why) and the walk to WHSmith seems too far. I’d only gorge on chocolate and crisps anyway.
The busy scene at St. Pancras International
The platform for Brussels appears on the screen and a huge rugby-type scrum ensues. On the platform, the very friendly guy boarding us tells me “it will be OK”. And soon it appears that there are some seats after all.
I’m in “Standard Premier”. “Standard” had already sold out when I booked, so I’m gaining a small chicken-based meal, and bottle of wine, but most importantly, a little bit more legroom, which for my nearly-giant 6’7” frame, is all-important. There is some debate amongst more regular Eurostar travellers about whether “Standard Premier” is worth it, but I’m more than happy as I glide through south London, quickly into Kent and then plunged into 20 minutes of darkness outside as we travel beneath the octopus’s garden, emerging suddenly into Northern France.
There’s something quite liberating about having no phone signal and no Internet access beneath the English Channel. I like it. But soon enough, people’s gadgets are soon chiming with text messages welcoming them to France and telling them how much it will cost to communicate with their nearest and dearest back in Blighty.
We pause briefly in Lille-Europe for those looking for an early taste of our nearest European neighbours, then we’re off again, over the border seamlessly to Belgium and Bruxelles-midi, with our immaculate staff thanking us for travelling with them.
Rather less immaculate though, is the state of the Eurostar trains themselves. Like an excited schoolboy, I rush the length of the train to take a pic of my cross-channel steed, but I’m quite disappointed to see just how dirty it is on the outside. Having white as a base colour doesn't help, but don’t these trains ever see the train wash?
My train under the channel - but it's filthy on the outside!
I have around 50 minutes here before the next leg of the journey, so I head in search of the Gents, which proves more difficult than it should be. A map indicates toilets in the Thalys departure area, but a mooch around proves fruitless. I eventually stumble upon a sign for “WC” but it’s locked up and what appears to be a Belgian beggar is asked me for a few cents.
Having fended off his advances with a typically British “Hmmphhh”, I follow the signs to another WC which shows a picture of a 50 cents (the coin, not the rapper) and my relief is complete. But it’s taken me a good 15 minutes to find this.
Back on the platforms, there’s plenty to interest those of a rail enthusiast persuasion. German ICE trains rub shoulders with equally classy Thalys units. And local Belgian trains ply their trade, some significantly graffiti-strewn – one displays the word “animal” across it’s cab roof in finest spray can style.
High-Speed trains meet at Brussels
My Thalys train to Rotterdam (then on to Amsterdam) has arrived from Paris. I know exactly where to stand for my carriage, thanks to a display that shows the makeup of the train.
finding your carriage/seat couldn't be easier!
The smartly turned out Thalys man greets us and proceeds to zap people’s tickets with a techno gizmo. Except he can’t zap mine as it’s a traditional ticket which is “unzappable”. This results in a grunt-like sound which I take to be a welcome on board.
There’s another grunt-bordering-on-hummphh awaiting me from the occupant of the aisle seat, next to my reserved window offering. He’s all wired up with a laptop and seemingly deep into a spreadsheet, and my arrival is going to necessitate a bit of moving. I’m tempted to ask if he “has a problem”, but decide that would be too typically British and uncouth, so I shuffle into my window seat with a nod and grunt back.
If anything, “Comfort 1” (Thalys-speak for “!st Class”) is even more impressive than Eurostar’s offering. It’s deep red lush interior is a very inviting way to speed across Europe. The small beef dish, complemented with a strawberry pudding more than makes up for a 10 minute late departure, although inevitably there’s never enough when it comes to on board food offerings.
The wi-fi is patchy at times, but it’s a useful tool as the phone signal is poor.
We arrive into Rotterdam only 5 minutes down and I’m suitably impressed with my first ever trip aboard a Thalys train.
I’m sure there is a tram to my hotel, but I decide to cop out after a long day travelling and jump in a taxi.
I try to make light conversation with my taxi driver by introducing football to the discussion. We’ve not long passed Feyenoord’s ground on the train, and though he tells me he doesn’t really follow football, the Dutch game is “dirt”. I decide not to discuss the merits of Steve “wally with the brolly” McLaren’s time at Dutch side FC Twente.
We arrive at the Maritime Hotel, overlooking the stunning Erasmus bridge, although this visual feast is almost lost on me as I spy a tram parked up next to the hotel.
I’m off to bed, but the trams will definitely be getting a pounding tomorrow....